Cane River

Five generations and a hundred years in the life of a matriarchal black Louisiana family are encapsulated in this ambitious debut novel that is based in part upon the lives, as preserved in both historical record and oral tradition, of the author’s ancestors. In 1834, nine-year-old Suzette, the “cocoa-colored” house servant of a Creole planter family, has aspirations to read, to live always in a “big house” and maybe even to marry into the relatively privileged world of the gens de couleur libre. Her plans are dashed, however, when at age 13 a French ‚migr‚ takes her as his mistress. Her “high yellow” daughter Philomene, in turn, is maneuvered into becoming the mother of Creole planter Narcisse Fredieu’s “side family.” After the Civil War, Philomene pins her hopes for a better future on her light-skinned daughter, Emily Fredieu, who is given a year of convent schooling in New Orleans. But Emily must struggle constantly to protect her children by her father’s French cousin from terrorist “Night Riders” and racist laws. Tademy is candid about her ancestors’ temptations to “pass,” as their complexions lighten from the color of “coffee, to cocoa, to cream to milk, to lily.” While she fully imagines their lives, she doesn’t pander to the reader by introducing melodrama or sex. Her frank observations about black racism add depth to the tale, and she demonstrates that although the practice of slavery fell most harshly upon blacks, and especially women, it also constricted the lives and choices of white men. Photos of and documents relating to Tademy’s ancestors add authenticity to a fascinating story. (Apr.)Forecasts: The success in recent years of similarly conceived nonfiction, like Edward Ball’s Slaves in the Family, proves readers can’t get enough of racially themed family history. Tademy, who left a high-level corporate job to research her family’s story, should draw larger-than-average audiences for readings in 11 cities.